Phu Quoc Island is an idyllic vision of sandy beaches, thick jungle, and clear blue waters. It has undergone many transformations from an undisturbed island with a population of fewer than 1000 people to a topic of contention and fighting between countries and now a quintessential Vietnamese holiday destination.
Phu Quoc is the largest island in Vietnam and stretches 50 km from north to south and is 25 km at its widest part. A large mountain range runs along the length of the island, reaching 603 meters at its highest point.
It sits just South of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand and has two seasons, the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season runs from around June to November and the dry season from December to March. The hottest time of the year is between April and March when temperatures can reach a roasting 35 degrees celsius, however, Phu Quoc is warm throughout the year with temperatures mostly remaining above 22-23 degrees celsius. To catch Phu Quoc in its prime it’s best to travel during the dry season when the sun is out, the humidity is low, and the skies are clear.
Phu Quoc is already the ideal place to escape the stresses of everyday life and immerse yourself in island living.
Food and Drink
Unsurprisingly, Phu Quoc’s diet is based largely around seafood, taking advantage of the surrounding ocean. The majority of restaurants and food shacks that line the beach are constantly cooking up some from of tasty seafood treat from simple barbequed fish and squid to more elaborate dishes.
Phu Quoc has long been known for its harvest of sea cucumbers, and some of the local dishes make use of this unusual seabed dwelling creature. The most famous dish is sea cucumber soup, but sea cucumbers are also served in many other forms such as salads, savoury porridge, or simply baked. Due to the increased demand from China and the highly regarded medicinal and health benefits of sea cucumbers, it can be a little tricky to find a restaurant serving them and the prices tend to be higher than most other dishes.
Competing with the sea cucumber for most unusual appearance is the local delicacy of grilled sea urchin. After the spines are removed, and the urchin is cleaned, it is topped with spring onion and grilled on the barbeque. The insides of the small spiky cups are then scooped out and enjoyed with the classic combination of salt, pepper, and lime juice.
Another unusual dish is Goi Ca Mai, or herring salad. What makes this dish so unusual is that the herrings are served raw, a bit like sushi. Because of the freshness of the fish, there is no need to cook them. They are simply sliced into fillets and marinated in a flavoursome sauce of lime juice, chillies, onions and coconut and served with fresh herbs, vegetables and rice paper.
Shellfish are also popular on the island, especially the flower crabs which can be found in many restaurants. It is up to the customer to their own crab which is then boiled. The rich meat is paired with a simple yet flavoursome sauce of lime juice, salt and black pepper.
Phu Quoc also has its own distinctive take on the traditional Vietnamese rice wine, Sim wine. Fruit from the rose myrtle trees, known as sim fruit, is juiced and then mixed with rice wine to give the drink a pleasant taste. There are even suggestions among locals that this wine has healing qualities.
Culture and Art
Phu Quoc has an interesting range of temples where you can take time out to reflect or discover more about the local culture. Perhaps one of the most famous it Dinh Cau Temple which sits on a rocky outcropping attached to Dinh Cau Beach, at the mouth of the Duong Dong River. The temple appears to be tangled in the rocks and trees growing around it and looks particularly beautiful at sunset. The temple is dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, Thien Hau who, along with the lighthouse that also perches on the rocks, provides protection to those at sea.
Phu Quoc also played a crucial role in the Cao Dai religion which is believed to have originated there. The main premise of Caodaism is that all religions are united in worshipping the same God. The temple is unique in its decoration with colourful religious paraphernalia filling the rooms. Another attraction of this temple is the stunning views from the top of the tower. It is the perfect place to take in the views of Duong Dong Town, the river, and the ocean. It also makes for a great photo opportunity.
To get a feel for the local way of life on Phu Quoc, you can discover some of the work that goes into the island’s main harvests. Phu Quoc is famed for its production of Nuoc Mam, fish sauce, which is made from a special type of anchovy found in the nearby waters. In the town of Duong Dong, there are a number of factories which welcome visitors to come and discover the process of making the staple Vietnamese sauce. Another of the island’s main exports is pepper which is grown on the pepper plantations. It is interesting to see how the everyday seasoning grows and it’s a great opportunity to pick up some of the finest pepper to take home.
Phu Quoc’s night market is another place to experience some local culture. Although the main area has become mostly aimed at tourists, it is still a great chance to meet local people and sample the delicious food or pick up some souvenirs. The fronts of the restaurants display their freshly caught seafood for customers to choose from but not before a bit of friendly bartering to ensure a good deal.
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